Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Maathai Interview (Part 1 of 2)

By Timothy J. McNulty
Freedom Museum/ What issues most concern you at the moment?

Maathai/ My current issues are basically the same I have been concerned about all my life, because they just seem not to disappear. Mostly human rights issues. Just when you think you have overcome, they come back in a different way. Right now in Kenya we are really almost reliving what we thought we had escaped, especially violation of human rights and almost a state tolerance to extrajudicial killings of people they think are “bad people.” But our Lord does not allow anybody to kill anybody just because they think they are “bad”. So that area just never seems to go away.

In America, I suspect we take many human rights for granted even while they may seem very generous to others.

Yes, it’s very much about the basic freedoms, freedom of speech, of access to information, of sharing information. In the past it was very difficult for Kenya to have different television stations, different newspapers, different radio stations. We broke that finally and we managed to open up that access to information. Now we have more radio stations than we can listen to.

But in many other countries, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression quite often is not there. The freedom of expression is the one most often infringed upon, both physically but especially by instilling fear in people so that they do not express themselves.

You mean the fear is unseen?

Yes, and that is what the state likes, then people censor themselves.

Freedom of religion is something we cherish, but even that can be most contentious.

Religion is extremely important and we know that Africans are expressing very intense religious experiences at the moment, whether they are doing so by becoming Muslims, which is expanding very fast, or whether they are doing so as Christians, which is also expanding very fast. They are very religious and what one wants to see is religion that is not used, as Karl Marx would have said, as an opiate to silence the people, to make the people accepting that whatever is there is God’s will and that they should not challenge it. When religion is used that way, then religion becomes a destructive force.

But when religion is used to empower, to inspire, to give people hope, to give people energy to do things, then of course it can be a very powerful force.

Still, religion is often a dividing rather than a uniting force.

Yes, religious people enjoy power, they don’t want to admit it, but they enjoy power. And power can be very corrupting because you can decide that whatever it takes to have that power, you will use. I am sure there are people who enjoy that power of religion and that position they enjoy, a position that almost forbids challenge. So that nobody comes to tell you “I don’t think what you are saying is right.” We don’t see too many Martin Luther at the moment.

Last year, Kenya had a very dividing experience after the election. One of the facts was that religions were split. Just as the country’s leaders were split, so too were religious leaders who tended to support the candidate from their community rather than support the candidate they thought who was best for the country, or for the values they hold. You would think religious leaders would be above the politics and say this candidate is the best… After the violence, religious leaders felt so bad they apologized to the public.

Religion can be a very powerful force but it can also divide. Religious leaders can influence people much more than the politicians because they claim they are speaking in God’s name. If they are, it is very difficult to go to God and ask him “Did you really say this?”

End Part 1


Post a Comment

<< Home


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]

About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at